Grief, Bereavement, Mourning

Grief is one human emotion that nearly every one of us have experienced or will, at some point, experience. Whether it is the grief that comes from the death of a loved one or grief from the loss of a relationship or a beloved pet. The experience is known by many names: grief, bereavement, and mourning being the most common. 

Despite the universality of it, there are some misconceptions about grief that I'd like to address today. 

The most common misconception, I believe, is that grief has a time limit. After a few months, we expect that the person who has been affected by a great loss will begin to "get over it." This is not always the case, though. Every person is different and therefore every grief experience is different. Some people may indeed be "over it" after a few months or possibly up to a year or two if the person they lost was one that was very close. Many people won't be "over it" at all. Ever! So expecting that after a set period of time the person should be "back to normal" is completely erroneous. 

Another misconception is that "time heals all wounds". Much like the first misconception, we are trying to put a timeframe on something that doesn't have one. More importantly, though, this would imply that everything will be fine "eventually". This is also not always the case. When one has suffered a great loss, they may never truly be "the same" again. This is not to say that they're damaged or faulty now, but rather to say that a great loss can be life changing. So they may not have the life they envisioned for themselves after a great loss and that doesn't mean that it can't be good--just different. Additionally, even after a very "normal" period of mourning, a person may continue to be triggered by things in the environment that remind them of their loss. Over time the reaction to the trigger may be lessened but it may not ever truly go away completely. It may change as well from crying, sobbing, and anger to a moment of wistfulness. 

A third misconception that is especially damaging is the fear of talking about the loss. Friends may not want to "stir up" the person that is grieving by talking about their loss or the experience of it, preferring to change the topic, get their mind off of it, or some other distraction. There is, I suppose, a time and a place for a change of topic, but the grieving person should be given the space to talk about the loss because it is in this storytelling that the person who has passed comes alive again in some small way. It also helps the grieving person to reflect on the life the person led, not just the end of it.

Finally, a fourth misconception is that everyone's grief looks the same. We're all different people and our mourning process may be different, too. Many years ago (1969) Kubler-Ross wrote a book in which she posited the 5 stages of grief. These are: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This model, set forth in this way, makes it seem like everyone goes down this path where first they're in denial, then they're angry, then they do some bargaining, then they feel depressed, then finally, they accept it. The reality is that many people don't do them in just that order, many people revisit the stages multiple times, and some people don't do all the stages. Its a lovely model and helpful for some, but one should use it as a model, not a guide, because each experience of bereavement is going to be different for each person.

Here are my suggestions for what to do if someone you know is greiving:

1. Allow them to share memories of the person (or animal) that has died--positive and negative.

2. Tell them that you love them and care about them no matter what.

3. Just "be there" to listen and avoid trying to make them feel better. (Its really uncomfortable, I know!) 

4. You could ask them if there is anything SPECIFIC they need ("would you like me to heat up this casserole for you?" "would it be okay for me to give you a hug?") But these are really if you're so uncomfortable with the silence that you just can't bear it. Its probably better to just be quiet and let them talk or let them sit in silence with you.

If you're grieving, here are my suggestions for you:

1. If you are involved in a church, synagogue, or other religious organization, use the support that is waiting there for you. Most religions have rituals surrounding death that are really quite helpful: memorial services, sitting shiva, wakes. If you're not religious, can you modify any of those things to help you in your grieving process? I remember many years ago I had a client that was grieving the loss of her dog. I had her bring the dog's collar to session and I told her to tell me all about him, sharing her favorite memories. At the end, I had her take the collar home and decide if she wanted to bury it or keep it as a memento of her beloved pet. We had a makeshift memorial service!

2. Allow yourself to be alone but also allow yourself to be with your community. Part of the Jewish tradition is for the grieving person to "sit shiva" during which they don't leave the house (because this might distract them from their grief). They are not to do anything but welcome visitors that bring them all kinds of food and their company so that the mourner can mourn with others. So, while it is important to have time alone to process or think or cry or rest, it is also important not to isolate. This is the time your friends, family, and community want to help you to mourn.

3. Recognize that you're under no time constraint for how long this process should take. If you feel like "I should be over this by now," consult a therapist to help determine whether your grief has set off depression or anxiety.

4. Allow yourself to cry and mourn in what ever way you need to. Perhaps, if you've tried the above, write in a journal (write a letter to the person that has died, write a letter to God, write about a memory you have of the person), paint, sculpt, or draw if you're artistically inclined, sit outside and just observe the nature around you. Above all else, avoid judging yourself for what your experience looks like.

If you're in that category that feels like "I should be over this by now" or if you're thining about hurting yourself in any way, I do recommend seeking a trained professional. They will be able to determine if you're experiencing depression and/or anxiety, and what other tools may be helpful for you as you cope with those challenges as well as continue to provide support for your mourning.